If you have a deep interest in natural history, then chances are Caitlin O’Connell’s name is already familiar. And if not: simply put, she’s like Jane Goodall, but with elephants.
The author’s note for Elephant Don: The Politics of a Pachyderm Posse (University of Chicago Press) identifies O’Connell as author of “the acclaimed science memoir The Elephant’s Secret Sense,” from the same publisher, “and the Smithsonian channel documentary 'Elephant King,’” which I am going to watch just as soon as this column is done. For in fact the topic was of no particular interest to me before noticing Elephant Don, with its arresting and beautifully composed cover photo of several tuskers gathered on a dusty plane in Namibia -- a portrait of “the boys’ club,” as O’Connell dubs a roving group she’s studied in the wild for many years.
Portions of the book are adapted from postings to the New York Times’s Scientist at Work blog that the author wrote while also publishing more technical presentations of her findings in Ethology Ecology & Evolution, American Zoologist and other peer-reviewed journals. When not doing fieldwork in Namibia, O’Connell is an instructor at the Stanford University School of Medicine. Her vita also lists her as co-author (with Donna M. Jackson) of The Elephant Scientist -- an award-winning children’s book -- to which Elephant Don is something like the grown-up’s sequel.
O'Connell's earlier writings, both scientific and popular, reported on research into elephants’ ability to communicate through their feet, via seismic waves. A bull in heat can “hear” the distinctive stomps of an amorous female and make his way in her direction. Elephants do not have a herdwide mating season. Mature individuals of either sex go into heat on their own cycle, for periods of four to six weeks, every five years or so. Without the earthshaking mating call, they might never hook up.
Why not? It’s a matter of gender politics: male offspring have a place in the herd until they reach sexual maturity. The surge of hormones turns the male calf into enough of a pest that the matriarchy pushes him out to fend for himself in a world full of predators and loneliness. (The men’s rights movement would be hard-pressed to adduce a more pitiful injustice.)
Elephant Don chronicles the life and times of a group of adult males who come to Mushara -- the watering hole where the author and her coworkers have established their observation post -- during several summers, beginning in 2005. The size and composition of the cohort change over time, but researchers can distinguish the animals by variations in size, tusk length and ear characteristics -- identifying them by nicknames that seem to become more comical from one year to the next, including Luke Skywalker, Keith Richards, Rocky Balboa and Captain Picard.
The de facto leader of the group -- the one who gets the best spot at the watering hole and decides when it’s time to leave -- is an old bull called Greg, also known as “the don,” for reasons that become clear after he takes his place:
“[The] subordinates line[d] up to place their trunks in his mouth as if kissing a Mafioso don’s ring…. Each bull approached in turn with trunk outstretched, quivering in trepidation, dipping the tip into Greg’s mouth. It was clearly an act of great intent, a symbolic gesture of respect for the highest-ranking male. After performing the ritual, the lesser bulls seemed to relax their shoulder as they shifted to a lower-ranking position within the elephant equivalent of a social club.”
The don bellows and flaps his ears to signal that it’s time to roll, and his loyal subordinates bellow in reply while making sure that the younger bulls don’t fall behind.
Hierarchy and communication are well-established aspects of life in the matriarchal herd, but O’Connell indicates that social order among exiled males is a much less studied topic. She observes other behavior that seems to express or maintain the leadership arrangement, such as one bull turning his back to acknowledge his subordinate position to another, or holding his trunk over a younger or smaller bull’s head, which seems to express camaraderie.
Another set of signs accompany the onset of musth, the mating phase, when a bull’s testosterone level shoots up to 20 times normal. He walks around in a state of constant arousal, dribbling urine and ready for action. Once in an all-male group, a young bull’s musth-driven aggression (fighting and mounting everyone in sight) will be met by shoves and head butting from his elders. O’Connell hypothesizes that such disciplinary action may cause “socially induced hormone suppression,” as happens with other species.
It doesn’t always work, and a couple of the book’s most dramatic chapters describe challenges to the don’s authority by low-ranking but high-testosterone young bulls. There is also a period when most of Greg’s entourage disintegrates under the stress of a drought, partially reassembling around his leadership when conditions improve later.
Giving the elephants human names, while a matter of convenience in recording their behavior, is already a step towards anthropomorphizing them, and the process is irreversible once you add narrative. That’s fine in popular exposition, since the stories O’Connell has to tell -- both about the elephants and about life in the field, with poisonous snakes and infrequent access to a shower -- are certainly absorbing.
But I wondered for a while if the ascriptions of personality and motive to her “pachyderm posse” might not embellish things beyond credibility. Only halfway through the book do we get a chapter reviewing scientific findings about elephants’ cognitive powers -- pages that put the question in a new light.
Seismic communication itself is pretty impressive, but elephants also have the capacity to solve problems (say, by throwing rocks or an uprooted tree onto an electrified fence to disable it) and to fine-tune tools: “In one study, for example, elephants were shown to use their highly muscular prehensile trunks to modify branches for optimum use as switches to repel flies.” Their proverbial memory may be superior to that of humans, and experiments have shown them to be able to understand iconic symbols and to remember distinctions for long periods.
So the possibility that they have rituals and a social order is not, on the whole, that much of a stretch. It’s enough to make you wonder what they think of us, assuming they even bother.
Because of my experience as former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, young business students and aspiring entrepreneurs often seek my advice on the best way to navigate the complex and daunting world of business. As college students begin to think about selecting their majors, they may be influenced by the many reports coming out this time of year that tell them which majors provide the highest post-college earning potential. Last month, PayScale released its 2013-2014 report, lauding math, science and business courses as the most profitable college majors.
My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a decline in liberal arts disciplines and a rise is pragmatically oriented majors. Simultaneously, there was a rise of employment by college graduates of 9 percent, as well as a decrease of employment by high school graduates of 9 percent. What this demonstrates, in my mind, is that the work place of the future requires specialized skills that will need not only educated minds, but adaptable ones.
That adaptability is where a liberal arts degree comes in. There is nothing that makes the mind more elastic and expandable than discovering how the world works. Developing and rewarding curiosity will be where innovation finds its future. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attributed his company’s success in 2011 to being a place where “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities … yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”
Is that reflected in our current thinking about education as looking at it as a return on investment? Chemistry for the non-scientist classes abound in universities, but why not poetry for business students? As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and understanding of human needs, wants and desires. Think about the things you love most in your life and you will likely see you value them because of how they make you feel, think and understand the world around you.
That does not mean forsaking practical knowledge, or financial security, but in our haste to get everyone technically capable we will lose sight of creating well-rounded individuals who know how to do more than write computer programs.
We must push ourselves as a society to makes math and science education innovative and engaging, and to value teachers and education. In doing so, we will ensure that America continues to innovate and lead and provide more job and economic opportunities for everyone. We must remember, however, that what is seen as cutting-edge practical or technological knowledge at the moment is ever-evolving. What is seen as the most innovative thinking today will likely be seen as passé in ten years. Critical to remaining adaptable to those changes is to have developed a mind that has a life beyond work and to track the changes of human progress, by having learned how much we have changed in the past.
I also believe that business leaders ought to be doing more to encourage students to take a second look at the liberal arts degree. In order to move the conversation beyond rhetoric it is important that students see the merits of having a liberal arts degree, in both the hiring process and in the public statements of today’s business leaders.
In my own life, after studying history at Williams College and McGill University, I spent my entire career in business, and was fortunate to experience success. Essential to my success, however, was the fact that I was engaged in the larger world around me as a curious person who wanted to learn. I did not rely only on business perspectives. In fact, it was a drive to understand and enjoy life -- and be connected to something larger than myself in my love of reading, learning, and in my case, studying and learning about Judaism -- that allows me, at 84, to see my life as fully rounded.
Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking -- which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or encountering the abstract, that we deal with every time we encounter art, music or theater -- ensures future success more than any other quality. Learn, read, question, think. In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life.
Edgar M. Bronfman was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd. and is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life.
I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).
When I heard that advocates of “Intelligent Design” were urging schools to "teach the controversy" between their view and Darwinian evolution, I was dismayed.
About 20 years ago, I coined the phrase “teach the controversy” when I argued that schools and colleges should respond to the then-emerging culture wars over education by bringing their disputes into academic courses themselves. Instead of assuming that we have to resolve debates over, say, whether Huckleberry Finn is a racist text or a stirring critique of racism, teachers should present students with the conflicting arguments and use the debate itself to arouse their interest in the life of the mind. I elaborated the argument in numerous essays and in a 1992 book, Beyond the Culture Wars, which is subtitled, How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.
So I felt as if my pocket had been picked when the Intelligent Design crowd appropriated my slogan, and even moreso when President Bush endorsed its proposal, saying that "both sides ought to be properly taught" so "people can understand what the debate is about." As a secular left-liberal, I felt that my ideas were being hijacked by the Christian Right as a thinly-veiled pretext for imposing their religious dogma on the schools.
And yet, setting intellectual property questions aside, the more I ponder the matter and read the commentators on both sides, the more I tend to think that a case can be made for teaching the controversy between ID and Darwin.
Not that the sides in this debate are equal, as Bush’s comment suggests. If we judge the issues strictly on their scientific merits, the Intelligent Designers don’t seem to have much of a case. In a lengthy and detailed article in The New Republic (August 22 & 29), the evolutionary scientist Jerry Coyne persuasively shows that the supposed "flaws" in the theory of natural selection that IDers claim to point out simply don’t exist. H. Allen Orr had made a similarly persuasive refutation of ID in The New Yorker (May 30), and these arguments have been further reinforced in articles by Daniel C. Dennett in The New York Times (August 28) and by Coyne again and Richard Dawkins in The Guardian (September 1).
Taken together, these writers make an overwhelming case that Darwinian evolution, if not a total certainty, is as certain as any scientific hypothesis can be. As Coyne puts it, "it makes as little sense to doubt the factuality of evolution as to doubt the factuality of gravity." From a strictly scientific standpoint, there seems to be no real "controversy" here that's worth teaching, just a bogus one that the IDers have fabricated to paper over the absence of evidence in their critique of evolutionary science.
And this would indeed be the end of the story if the truth or validity of an idea were the sole thing to consider in deciding whether it is worth presenting to students. But when we measure the pedagogical merits of an idea, its usefulness in clarifying an issue or provoking students -- and teachers -- to think can be as important as its truth or validity. In some cases even false or dubious notions can have heuristic value.
This point has been grasped by several commentators unconnected with the Christian Right who defend the teaching of the controversy. In a column of June 2000, before ID had become prominent in the news, Richard Rothstein, then The New York Times education columnist, proposed that students be exposed to the debate between creationism and evolution. And in a piece on the controversy earlier this year in Slate, Christopher Hitchens, asks, “Why not make schoolchildren study the history of the argument? It would show them how to weigh and balance evidence, and it would remind them of the scarcely believable idiocy of the ancestors of 'intelligent design.'"
Hitchens’ argument has been challenged by the editors of The New Republic, who caustically retort that getting kids to weigh and balance evidence is not exactly “what Bush -- or IDers -- want at all.” What they want "instead is to teach ID as a substantive scientific argument. If anything, what Bush is calling for is anti-historical, the exact opposite of what Hitchens praises." This is true, but so what? Hitchens doesn’t claim that his argument is one the IDers themselves would make, but only that students would learn something important about how to think from the kind of debate the IDers propose.
Secular liberals will object that Hitchens is overly confident that the good guys would win if the debate were aired in schools. In his scenario, the students would see the "idiocy" of ID’s ancestors and also presumably of its current advocates. What secular liberals fear, however, is that in many classrooms the scientific truth would be overwhelmed by dogma and prejudice.
Behind such fear -- and behind the liberal secularist objections to teaching the debate -- one senses the shellshock and impotence of the Blue-state Left in the wake of the 2004 election, and the worry that the Left will only lose again if it allows itself to be suckered into debating "values" with the religious Right on its own terms. This worry is deepened by the feeling that American public debate is not a level playing field, but an arena in which conservative money and Fox News control the agenda.
Though I share these fears, there seems to me a certain failure of nerve here on the part of the Left. After all, if evolution and intelligent design were debated in academic courses, the religious Right would have the same risk of losing as the liberal secularists -- maybe greater risk, if Hitchens is correct. In any case, it’s not clear that one wins a battle of beliefs by hunkering down, circling the wagons, and refusing to engage the other side. And if the Right has more money and media clout with which to shape such a debate, that may be all the more reason to enter the debate: if you don’t have money and media clout, arguments are your best bet.
Seen this way, the anti-evolution assaults of the Intelligent Designers and the creationist Right could be viewed less as a threat than an opportunity. This moral is suggested by a recent news story in The New York Times that reports that museum staffs that are being challenged by religious patrons to explain why they should believe in evolution “are brushing up on their Darwin and thinking on their feet” (September 20, 2005). One museum has developed training sessions for staff members “on ways to deal with visitors who reject settled precepts of science on religious grounds.”
What is most interesting in the article, and most germane to the recent debate, is the suggestion, reflected in quoted statements by museum people, that though this religious rejection of science may be misguided, it needs to be listened to and answered rather than ignored or dismissed, and that being forced to defend evolution can actually be a good thing. The implication is that it’s not unreasonable for patrons to press museum people to explain the grounds on which evolutionary science is more credible than ID or creationism. As one director of a paleontological research institution puts it, "Just telling" such patrons "they are wrong is not going to be effective." As another museum staffer advises docents, "it's your job not to slam the door in the face of a believer," and another says, "your job is ... to explain your point of view, but respect theirs."
Arguably, this is precisely the job of teachers as well, though admittedly museums serve different functions than educational institutions. If the goal of education is to get students to think, then just telling students their doubts about Darwin are wrong is not going to be effective. And teachers being forced to engage their religious critics and explain why they believe in evolution might be a healthy thing for those teachers just as it seems to be for museum workers. In fact, I would like to ask Coyne, Dennett, Orr, and others who have written so cogently in defense of evolution if they don’t feel just a tiny bit grateful to the IDers for pushing them to think harder about -- and explain to a wider audience -- how they know what they know about evolution.
Scientists like Coyne and Dawkins concede that debate should indeed be central to science instruction, but they hold that such debate should be between accredited hypotheses within science, not between scientists and creationist poseurs. That's hard to dispute, but, like Rothstein and Hitchens, I can at least imagine a classroom debate between creationism and evolution that might be just the thing to wake up the many students who now snooze through science courses. Such students might come away from such a debate with a sharper understanding of the grounds on which established science rests, something that even science majors and advanced graduate students now don’t often get from conventional science instruction.
How might such a debate be taught? Ideally in a way that would not become fixated on the clash of faith and science, which might quickly produce an unedifying stalemate, but would open out into broader matters such as the history of conflicts between science and religion and the question of how we determine when something qualifies as "science." At the broadest level, the discussion could address whether the ID-evolution debate is a smoke screen for the larger political and cultural conflict between Red and Blue states. Representing such a many-sided debate would demand the collaboration of the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, a collaboration that could make a now disconnected curriculum more coherent. Such a collaboration would also answer the scientists’ objection that there just isn’t time to debate these issues, given everything else they have to cover. Then, too, explaining how we know what we know against skeptical questioning is not an add-on, but an intrinsic part of teaching any subject.
In any case, science instructors may soon have no choice but to address the controversy posed by ID and creationism. If many American students now bring faith-based skepticism about evolution with them into classrooms, as it seems they do, then there’s a sense in which the controversy has already penetrated the classroom, just as it has penetrated museums, whether ID or creationism is formally represented in the syllabus or not. Schools and colleges may not be teaching the controversy between faith and science, but it’s there in the classroom anyway insofar as it’s on some students’ minds. Teachers can act as if their students’ doubts about evolution don’t exist, but pretending that your students share your beliefs when you know they don’t is a notorious prescription for bad teaching.
Gerald Graff is a professor of English and education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education (W. W. Norton, 1992) and Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (Yale University Press, 2003).